The most superficial and platitudinous politician in South Africa

If leaked reports to local media are to be believed, Mmusi Maimane is one of the two young turks vying for the future leadership spot of South Africa’s ‘official opposition party’–the Democratic Alliance. The spot will open once their current strongwoman Helen Zille finally relinquishes her position after next year’s national election. The other candidate is DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.

Maimane is the leader of the DA in the Johannesburg City Council and is running for Premier of South Africa’s political and economic center–the province of Gauteng (where Johannesburg is located). If DA hubris means anything, it is that they honestly believe they have a chance of wresting Gauteng out of the hands of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Maimane, despite his apparent reputation in DA circles as a “man of the people,” appears to possess a rather limited political imagination. Or rather he comes off as being perhaps the most superficial and platitudinous politician in South Africa. A highly coveted award, when one is competing with the high standards set by the likes of Mamphela Ramphele.

He and his campaign team have shamelessly pilfered from the inspirational vagaries of the Obama 2008 campaign. From their official campaign slogan #BelieveGP to the fact they have a campaign bus decked out in the conservative blue of the DA with a decal of the above hashtag to cruise around the recently e-tolled highways of Gauteng. His team even called his campaign launch event last Saturday “the Believe in Change rally.” This is his and the DA’s rather lame attempt to reach out to the young black voters they desperately hope to capture in order to make a serious dent in the ANC’s share of the electorate.

Maimane described himself in a recent op-ed in the (Johannesburg) Sunday Independent as “a communicator by profession.” What this means is that he worked as “consultant on transforming private companies”–a suitably vague career–and later as a “motivational” speaker.

In the same op-ed, he failed to articulate a politics beyond an opposition to the “dictatorial” tendencies of the ruling party and being against the usual enemies: “corruption,” “inefficiency” and for all the usual things like “sustainable land reform.”

This however isn’t his greatest sin against those who view politics as a business to be kept out of the greedy hands of advertising executives. No, indeed in an interview with the same Sunday Independent published last Saturday, he showed us all that he has the personality of a self-help guru (‘motivational speaker’) and the politics of a Hallmark gift card. We now know which celebrities he aspires to meet, his taste or lack thereof in literature and other such things for the cynics among us to mock on social media.

Take this for example:

What makes you proudly South African?

The people of this great nation, their strength in overcoming obstacles, their humility and forgiveness and their determination to make our future bright.

Zero content, perfect form. Maimane presents no opportunity for gaffes or anything of remote interest to anyone unconvinced by focus group tested answers. He presents the post-racial in the form of the values of “humility and forgiveness”, or in other words blacks must suck it up and forget the past in order to “make our future bright.”

Another example of this can be found here–in which Maimane outlines the DA’s vision of the post-racial “open opportunity society.” A society in which race doesn’t matter, a hallmark card vision of the rainbow nation in which all the social strife and stratification which currently muddies the waters is suddenly washed away by the power of the platitude.

What do you hope for your children and the children of South Africa?

I hope for a place where skin colour no longer matters, where everyone has a chance to make the best of their lives, a chance to be something, go somewhere and provide for their families.

His taste in dinner guests is inoffensive and rather dull.

 Who would you invite to your dream dinner, dead or alive?

Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Denzel Washington

Who doesn’t like Denzel?

His life can be reduced to three words ideal for the self-help guru’s cheap Infomercial.

Describe your life in three words?

Live, love, learn

And his taste in literature.

What are you reading?

Zuma Exposed (by Beeld editor Adriaan Basson) and A Team of Rivals, about former US president Abraham Lincoln

Maimane mentions bestselling US pop historian and serial plagiarizer Doris Kerwin Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals again, later in the interview. Goodwin is described by Salon.com’s Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenburg as an inspired cheerleader masquerading as a professional historian. Guilty of recycling old stories in a popular book or outright theft from more academic work and passing it along to the punditocracy as a New York Times bestseller.

Maimane wants the reader to know not only has he read the aforementioned book, but it has played an important role in his own political development along with the Bible.

Which book changed your life?

Man. These vary from the Bible, to inspirational books on management, leadership and politics. If I had to choose one A Team of Rivals would be one of my favorites.

A Team of Rivals is a wholly unoriginal work of popular history that tells the tale of how US president Abraham Lincoln managed to bring his political rivals into his wartime cabinet. This ‘team of rivals’ after many mishaps was eventually able to win the civil war for the union team.

The book played a key role in Obama’s 2008 campaign and supposedly influenced his political development greatly. Asked what book he would take with him if he were to be hypothetically exiled to a desert island, Obama replied quickly “A Team of Rivals”.

In US politics to boast about reading Goodwin’s book, is to hint that one is committed to the ideal of “bipartisanship.” Bipartisanship means in the discourse of US politics that you’re willing to work with the other team for the greater good. This is closely linked to highly coveted reputation of being a “pragmatist”, something most Democrats value enough to support invading Iraq or to come out in favor of cutting social security.

Obama embraced ‘bipartisanship’ from the beginning, when he appointed his rival in the primary campaign Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State and giving Bush’s man Robert Gates another stint as Secretary of Defense or more recently giving republican ‘moderate’ Chuck Hagel Gates’ old position.

Bipartisanship, as the late great Alexander Cockburn pointed out, actually means:

Really big decisions about the nation’s economic destiny are considered much too important to run the risk of any popular, democratic input. When you see the word bipartisan, know that the fix is in and democracy out of the loop.

Bipartisanship is a cherished ideal of pundits, who yearn for elites to come together and unite to push a moderate agenda free of ideology and accountably to the masses–because they can’t be trusted at all.

The same applies to foreign policy and imperialist war of course. But why on earth would Mmusi Maimane boast about reading this particular book as part of his carefully crafted script used to cultivate an appealingly bland public persona? Surely he could have followed the usual route and waxed lyrical about Mandela’s The Long Walk to Freedom? This would have continued the DA’s official tradition of pretending that they are the true representatives of Mandela’s legacy.

And if he was reaching out to the liberal right faction within the DA–who apparently don’t like him too much because he talks about ‘Ubuntu’–he could have just said that Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (the holy text of South African liberalism). No, Maimane is clearly obsessed with US politics and in particular the figure of Barack Obama and his ‘inspirational’ 2008 campaign. That 2008 campaign seems to have happened an age ago, before Obama showed us how dedicated he is to sucking up to Wall Street at home and imperialist war abroad.

To return to Cockburn again, he summed up Obama’s politics:

Abroad, Obama stands for imperial renaissance. He has groveled before the Israel lobby and pandered to the sourest reflexes of the cold war era. At home he has crooked the knee to bankers and Wall Street, to the oil companies, the coal companies, the nuclear lobby, the big agricultural combines. He is even more popular with Pentagon contractors than McCain . . . He has been fearless in offending progressives, constant in appeasing the powerful.

The vapid rhetoric of ‘change’ compromised with policies, which are more than anything, a continuation with what the other team has been doing and continues to do. In the case of the DA their fundamental policies aren’t too different to the ANC’s in terms of the economy, both are dedicated to a firmly neoliberal economic path premised on bringing in austerity and limiting worker’s rights under the guise of a ‘social compact’. Whilst proposing tepid ‘solutions’ to our national malaise including and not limited to the youth wage subsidy. That particular policy has been put into practice by Zuma’s ANC. Irvin Jim of NUMSA (National Union of the Metalworkers of South Africa)–South Africa’s largest and most radical union–has even gone as far as to term the ANC’s new National Development Plan–the supposedly be all and end all of future ANC policy–as partially lifted from the DA’s policy book.

In the aforementioned op-ed, Maimane failed to articulate a politics beyond an opposition to the ‘dictatorial’ tendencies of the ruling party and being against the usual enemies; ‘corruption’, inefficiency’ and for the usual things ‘sustainable land reform’ and being for initiatives “that enhance socio-economic development and create jobs.” What these things are, beyond creating a pleasant and temperate investment climate for foreign investors and loosening up of labour laws, is left to the imagination. These are all things which the ANC claims to support and can be found in even vaguer language in the NDP. He even came out in favor of previous DA bugbears ‘social grants’ and ‘broad based black empowerment’. In essence what the DA and Maimane seem to be claiming is that the DA can do the ANC’s job and policies better than the guys currently in power.

At his “rally for change” in Kliptown in the sprawling township of Soweto, 7,000 blue-shirted persons were entertained by endless videos of Maimane visiting places and a DA hip-hop crew encouraging voters to register for a “better life.” When Maimane finally took to the podium, the best he could offer was that he was for change and jobs and against corruption. A crowd sick of the ANC’s arrogance, corruption and general indifference to the plight of the poor or perhaps motivated by “gifts”–a common feature in South African politics–cheered him on. But as those witnessing from the DA’s model of governance in the crime-ridden slums of the Cape Flats in such places as Nyanga and Manenberg can tell you–“change” means more of the same under the DA.

Maimane more than anything represents the rebranding of the DA’s solid neoliberalism through promoting a black face capable of connecting to the masses with vacuous rhetoric and cheap political stunts.

In that he mirrors his political idol Obama.

Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is doing his PhD in history at New York University. He is a regular contributor to Africa is a Country and Jacobin.

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